The Pandemic Is Poisoning Body Image: It’s Time To Find The Antidote

Article originally written by Sarah Berger for Article snippet and preview below.

It’s tough to think of a time when people were as hyper-aware of their bodies as they are now. The COVID-19 pandemic ignited an unparalleled vigilance in how people approach their health—examining every cough, sore throat and muscle ache, concerned the culprit could be COVID.

Simultaneously, people are facing unprecedented isolation and drastic disruption of their daily routines and sense of normalcy. The lack of control over nearly every aspect of pandemic life—be it school and office reopenings, mask mandates or canceled events—has put many people in a fragile state, both physically and mentally.

“People deal with stress and uncertainty in different ways,” says James Greenblatt, M.D., a psychiatrist, chief medical officer at Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, Massachusetts and author of Answers to Anorexia.

“Having spent so much time in isolation due to lockdowns and remote work, many people may be turning more attention than usual to their bodies, what they eat and their overall level of physical health,” he says. “For some, this is beneficial. For others, an intensified focus on body image may become problematic in the sense that it may (potentially) open the door to such things as body dysmorphia and unhealthy eating behaviors.”

According to the Forbes Health-Ipsos survey, 60% of people say their body image has not changed since the start of the pandemic. However, of those who did say it changed, 27% said they became more concerned about their body image compared to just 13% who said they became less concerned. Additionally, 26% said they feel more negatively about their body image since before the onset of the pandemic while only 15% said they feel more positively today. In both cases, the number of those who were negatively impacted or faced increased concern was roughly double of those who were not.

Beyond negative body image, the pandemic even exacerbated the extent of eating disorders among people who already reported having one.

“Studies have shown an overall increased incidence of eating disorders and obesity during the pandemic—a trend that is a result of school and work closures and resulting sedentary lifestyle, as well as the rise of depression, anxiety and mental health problems over this time period,” says Adrienne Youdim, M.D., an internist who specializes in medical weight loss and clinical nutrition and a 2022 Forbes Health Advisory Board member. “Not to mention stress, which in itself is associated with a shift in hunger hormones, promoting greater hunger and weight gain.”

Indeed, a new study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders examined the early impact the pandemic had on people with self-reported eating disorders in the U.S. and the Netherlands. The study found participants with anorexia nervosa (an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight and intense fear over gaining weight) reported increased restriction and fears about finding food consistent with their meal plan. Meanwhile, those with bulimia nervosa (another type of eating disorder characterized by a cycle of binging and compensatory behavior to prevent weight gain) and binge-eating disorders reported increases in their binge-eating episodes and desire to binge. Additionally, the study found many participants experienced increased anxiety over the pandemic’s impact on their mental and physical health.

“This reality we all now find ourselves in—the ‘new abnormal’—full of stresses, uncertainties, traumas, fears, grief, disruptions to normal rhythms of eating and sleeping…in this environment, there is more potential for such factors to tip the scales of mental health away from balanced equilibrium and toward a disease state, particularly if an individual has certain genetic predispositions or vulnerabilities,” says Dr. Greenblatt.

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